When Cops Shoot: A Half-Second To Decide, And A Lifetime To Remember

Today, deep thoughts regarding cops and guns.

The papers love to carry stories about some cop who put three boxes of ammo into a, by implication, perfectly innocent victim, preferably dark-skinned, out of (implied but never quite stated) sheer fascism. Regarding which, the following.

Are some cops trigger-happy? Yep. A very few. Are some departments worse than others in this respect? Yep. Should they get more training? Yep. Are you going to vote the tax increase to pay for it?

Nope.

When a cop shoots somebody whom, on investigation, it turns out he shouldn’t have shot, he may have done something blameworthy, as distinct from guessing wrong when he didn’t have time to think. But probably not. Look carefully at the circumstances. Put yourself in his shoes. If he was culpable–and maybe he was–so be it. But ask.

Cops for the most part aren’t good with guns. You don’t learn to shoot by carrying a pistol on your belt for twelve months a year. Shooting accurately requires a whole lot of practice. Depending on the force, an officer may only put four to six magazines downrange per year. He will do it on a range, shooting typically at stationary targets.

In theory, perhaps cops should practice more. The problem is that ammunition, range time, and the reduction in the street force that would result from serious shooting practice would cost a fortune. Add that cops can go through whole careers without unholstering their guns in anger, much less firing, and chiefs tend to spend the money on other things.

Besides not being able to shoot well, cops get little training in deciding when to shoot. And deciding this, ladies and gentlemen, is not easy.

Most departments have what are called shoot-no-shoot programs. In these, usually there is a large rear-projection video screen in a darkened room. The cop being trained stands with a modified pistol in his holster. It fires a laser beam detected by sensors, so that you can tell when he shot the screen and where he hit it.

The screen shows situations such as real cops really encounter. The view is that seen by a walking cop answering a call. For example, you see a suburban lawn and house. The call is a domestic: a couple quarreling. An old man comes out the door, carrying a gun pointing toward the ground. He’s badly worked up. He screams at the cop, “What business you got here, you meddling etc.?” He turns and screams at his invisible wife in the house. He’s obviously unstable. He turns and the gun starts up?.

You’ve got less than a second to decide whether to shoot him. Much less. His gun doesn’t come up slowly. The guy’s pumping adrenaline.

Try it. Hold your hand at your side, as if grasping a gun. See how fast you can bring it level if you are really trying. All you have to do is bend your wrist.

How fast can that old guy do it? Answer: Before you can shoot him. If he wants it, he’s going to get the first shot. Even assuming that you are sure you want to shoot him.

And you aren’t.

I’ve done shoot-no-shoots, for example with the Prince George’s County force. I was used to guns, and knew that the worst I could do was put a spot of light on a screen: I wasn’t going to kill anyone by guessing wrong. But if I tried to make the necessary decision (is he trying to shoot me? Or is the gun just coming up a bit because he’s excited and waving his arms?) I often couldn’t get the first shot off.

This is real-world. Things aren’t clear. You answer an armed-robbery call at a Stop-And-Rob, go down the alley where the owner’s wife says the bad guy went, the bad guy having a gun, and a guy with a gun comes around the corner and his gun starts up. Bang, you got him. Good shooting, Lone Ranger.

Except you just killed the store’s owner, who was also chasing the bad guy.

You have to decide. The bad guy doesn’t. You’re a cop. Bang. You can guess wrong. You find that the old guy on the lawn had an unloaded gun, or it was a starter’s pistol. You killed him for nothing. But if you don’t shoot, and you guess wrong, your wife gets to explain to the kids why daddy isn’t coming home anymore. If I had a nickel for every cop who has died by hesitating too long, I’d have the nicest red Miata.

Maybe the cop did wrong. But look at the circumstances.

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